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The beautiful game
Aug 10, 2007

Every so often I run across an historic item that piques my interest, especially in the context of something that has recently occurred.

One such item was an article dating back to August 10, 1907, from the Winnipeg-based Morning Telegram. The article published 100 years ago today, happened to be about a soccer riot in Winnipeg which shows that the eruption of violence by the Chilean soccer team at the recent Under-20 World Cup held in Canada is the norm rather than the exception when it comes to the “beautiful game.”

After the semi-final in Toronto between Chile and Argentina, at least a dozen Chilean players clashed with police and were handcuffed until control was restored. The Chilean team lost 3-0 to Argentina. The Chilean team was handed nine yellow cards and had two players ejected from the match. The Chilean coach had to restrain his players to prevent them from attacking the referee during the game. The anger of the players spilled over to the entrance of the stadium when the team was set to board their bus. The fist fight became and international incident when Toronto police officers were accused by the players of unnecessarily using Tasers and pepper spray to subdue them.

One hundred years ago, on the evening of August 9, at the Exhibition Grounds on Sinclair Street between Jarvis and Selkirk avenues, the trouble erupted with just minutes remaining in the Manitoba Football Association match between Uniteds (sic) and Celtics (sic).

What is amazing of the 100-year newspaper account is that it could have been reporting a soccer game being played today. It’s a scene that has been played out time and time again in some of the more rabid soccer countries and is often witnessed in South America.

“It had been brewing all through the second half,” reported the Telegram. “Players had come together on several occasions. Spence of Uniteds was once ruled off for three minutes by Referee McNeil for committing a foul. His trip to the side lines was accompanied by groans and hisses from the spectators, some of whom thus expressed their satisfaction at his forced retirement and others their opinion of the referee.”

At one point, a fist fight broke out between goaltender Sloan of United and W. McDowell of the Celtics when Sloan caught the ball and ran forward to kick it. Several spectators jumped onto the field to take part in the melee, but the referee managed to restore order.

“While a corner kick was being called to the right of the Uniteds’ goal, Duncan of the Uniteds and Connachan of the Celtics got into an altercation which quickly brought about the passing of blows. The players had scarcely started the fight when a number of spectators rushed them.

“Then followed what was possibly as disgraceful a scene as was ever seen on an athletic field.”

The crowd became a struggling, excited mass of humanity, according to the newspaper, and surged in one direction and then another.

Apparently, the idea was to form a ring around the combatants and let them fight it out. Still, others wanted to join in the melee, while others were seen holding the arms of those rushing forward to prevent them from engaging in the fight.

“And while the struggling mass of men surged about in different directions women were to be seen running wildly to escape possible entanglement in the crowd.”

Surprisingly, calm was restored for a few minutes as the referee blew his whistle to clear the field and allow the players to resume the game.

The referee’s efforts were the calm before the storm as the melee was soon renewed.

“This time a Celtic player was witnessed in a wild chase after a man in street clothes who when he was overtaken was beaten about the head and face.”

Finally the crowd divided into sections and quieted down while the players went to their respective dressing rooms. Those that remained on the field simply talked about what had happened, though no one was able to present a complete view of the chief participants.

Among the more severely injured was John McDowell, a brother of the McDowells of Celtics. It was reported that his face was completely covered in blood. Goaltender Sloan of Uniteds suffered a bad cut on his arm.

While there were police on hand in Toronto to keep the Chilean players in line, 100 years ago the police were nowhere to be seen. A point that was stressed in the newspaper. The absence of police also meant that no one was arrested for the fracas and everyone was able to go home.

As with the game between Chile and Argentina, Celtic and United were playing a semi-final, though not in a world championship but only for the People Shield series. Even today, the level of the game being played has little bearing on the possible reaction of fans and players — at anytime a fight may break out when the passions associated with the game are stirred to a fever pitch. 

People tend to take their soccer very seriously and are not adverse to taking out their anger whenever something occurs that doesn’t please them. 

I’ve been at a West Ham United game in London, England and seen fans throw darts at those cheering for the other side when a goal was scored. In other portions of the stands, alcohol-fuelled rowdies spent more time loudly taunting rival spectators than watching the game.

In Spain, I’ve seen a hotel owner watching a match on TV smash down and trample a barroom door when a goal was scored against Real Madrid. Others, including two policemen armed with menacing-looking machine-guns, simply shrugged their shoulders as the hotel owner stomped out of 

the room cursing  in anger. I guess they weren’t too concerned about property 

destruction since it was his door. But he should have stuck around as Madrid won. 

Yes, the occasional fight can erupt between fans and players at a hockey game, but most fist fights are between actual players and invariably brief. And in Canadian football games — American football also — fighting rarely breaks out either between fans or players.

One has to wonder what’s so “beautiful” about the so-called “beautiful game.”